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Science at the Ballot Box

By Emma Johnston

When you find yourself at the ballot box on 18 May, ask yourself about each party’s science and technology credentials. Here’s a guide.

Last month I was proud to host more than 70 leaders from 58 science and technology organisations in Sydney to craft a unified platform for science policy ahead of the Federal election on 18 May. Together we compared priorities and came away with four shared positions that we would like to see adopted by each of the major parties:

  • a whole-of-government plan for science and technology;
  • a strategy to equip the future Australian workforce with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills;
  • strong investment in fundamental and applied research; and
  • a commitment to creating policy across all portfolios that is informed by the best available evidence.

This also included specific targets, such as aiming to spend a minimum of 3% of GDP on research and development by 2030, commitments to reverse cuts and secure investment in government research and funding agencies, scoping for a Research Translation Fund to support commercialisation and research translation in non-medical areas, and improvements to foster a diverse, inclusive and equitable sector.

The 2019–20 Federal Budget and the Opposition reply that followed were opportunities for the major parties to pitch their vision for science. Both clearly signalled that science and technology are not front-of-mind for our major parties.

The Coalition promised generous provisions for medical research but cut support for university research, and is seeking to reassign the $3.9 billion Education Investment Fund.

Labor’s Budget reply highlighted the need for STEM skills for our future workforce, focused heavily on Vocational Education and Training (VET). Although Labor has previously committed to a target for investment of 3% of GDP, its Budget reply said little about the future of research and development.

We can and should aim higher. Strong investment would underpin ambitious and internationally competitive research and development and establish Australia as a leader in STEM.

So far, the Coalition has had a steady focus on commercial research and development, with the introduction of engagement and impact assessment for funded research and a requirement for publicly funded research to meet a national interest test. However, concerns around the declining level of business investment and how the research and development tax incentive functions are yet to be addressed.

At our leadership Forum, the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews, said the campaign ahead would focus on:

  • support for public-facing science outreach and engagement;
  • lifelong learning through school STEM education, the VET sector, and retraining mature workers in technology; and
  • a recommitment to the National Science and Technology Council as the primary mechanism to advise senior government leadership on STEM policy issues.

No concrete commitment regarding funding has been made to date, and we await plans for the National Innovation and Science Agenda, which is scheduled to end this year.

Labor has committed to increase investment in research and development to 3% of GDP by 2030, but no detailed explanation of how any increase in funding will be achieved (e.g. whether it is through direct government funding or through incentivising business). Labor has left such details until the completion of a nationwide “root and branch” review of research funding structures and priorities (disclosure: I will be a panel member for this review).

At our Forum, the Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Kim Carr, also committed to unlocking the Education Investment Fund, which would make funding available to universities for vital facilities and infrastructure.

The Greens have also laid out their ambitions for the STEM sector, with a target of 4% of GDP for research and development by 2030. Greens spokesperson for Science, Adam Bandt, made the following specific commitments at our Forum:

  • additional money for the ‘Protecting science and research package’ of $850 million for the ARC, NHMRC and CRCs;
  • reversing and preventing funding cuts to CSIRO;
  • an additional $400 million for the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap; and
  • $500 million for organisations that support women scientists and early- and mid-career researchers.

As the campaign continues, we will engage with the parties to seek further details about the policies impacting Australian science, technology and STEM professionals. I hope you will be inspired to do the same and help spark conversations in your community about science and technology.

In the context of declining government and business investment in science and technology and declining participation in STEM subjects, strengthening the sector will be important for us all. Electing a government that shares our vision is vital.

Emma Johnston is President of Science & Technology Australia.